With 90 per cent of the world’s wild fish stocks now overexploited, farmed fish has arguably become a necessity; Omega-3 oils from fish are essential for human health. However, University of Edinburgh graduate Douglas Martin knows only too well the issues this industry faces.
“Farmed fish clearly have a less detrimental environmental impact than trawling. But when you consider that it takes close to one and a half kilos of fish meal and oil to produce one kilo of farmed salmon, it’s not sustainable either. We’re catching more than we grow.”
Douglas is the Founder and Managing Director of MiAlgae, an innovative Scottish biotech startup aiming to eliminate reliance on wild-caught fish as a source of Omega-3, by harnessing the potential of microalgae – microscopic algae or phytoplankton, invisible to the eye, that are found in freshwater and seawater.
The idea came to Douglas while studying for his MSc in Synthetic Biology and Biotechnology at Edinburgh.
“Fish don’t make Omega-3 oils. They accumulate them from the plankton they eat, such as algae”, he explains. “I realised if we could cultivate Omega-3-rich microalgae, using precision fermentation, we could create a nutritious, natural and ocean-friendly sustainable alternative to wild-caught fish.”
Harnessing the water of life
Douglas works with fellow Edinburgh Synthetic Biologist James Gilman, now Head of Research and Development at MiAlgae. After months of experimenting with different materials to feed the microalgae, they discovered that using by-products from one of Scotland’s most emblematic and successful industries proved to be the winning formula.
“With more than 140 distilleries in Scotland, whisky by-products are an abundant, cost-effective and safe food source for microalgae production,” Douglas explains.
Seven years on, MiAlgae now employs 38 people and has proven its technology at scale, cultivating 100s of tonnes of microalgae in specially designed bioreactors each year. MiAlgae turns these algae into an Omega-3-rich algal powder ready to add to animal feed for clients worldwide, returning clean water in the process.
Of course, great ideas like Douglas’ don’t turn into successful businesses overnight.
“It takes a long time and a lot of hard work to grow a company from an initial concept to employing people and being financially sustainable. It’s tough,” says Lorna Baird, who leads the Student Enterprise team at Edinburgh’s commercialisation service, Edinburgh Innovations.
Douglas first approached the Student Enterprise team in 2016. He likens his first meeting to a therapy session.
“I walked in with a crude idea, grasping at straws without knowing what to do with it,” he recalls. “Our business advisor knew exactly the right questions to ask to help me find my own answers. I had already killed many ideas on paper without testing them out in the world before. But this and subsequent conversations gave me the confidence to approach people. So, armed with my University of Edinburgh student email address, I began reaching out to potential customers, which helped me get to the root of the problem my idea was solving and understand how to commercialise it.”
A guide through the entrepreneurship journey
The Student Enterprise team supported Douglas through pitching competitions, where he secured initial funding and met investors who would go on to fund MiAlgae further.
“I set up the company in September 2016 and was fully funded by July 2017. At every step, our advisor painted a realistic picture of what entrepreneurship would look like and guided me through the various stages of getting MiAlgae off the ground,” Douglas recalls. “They gave me access to entrepreneurs a couple of years ahead of me on the journey and helped me access information I otherwise wouldn’t have had that I needed to proceed. Such small nudges at the right time can save you years – we would not have progressed as quickly as we did without their support.”
Old College Capital, the University’s venture investment fund, part of Edinburgh Innovations, has since invested £1 million in MiAlgae from its funds, which come partly from its returns on investments in previous University of Edinburgh spinout and startup companies.
Lorna explains Edinburgh Innovation’s support for student entrepreneurs has undertaken a similarly transformative journey during the past seven years. “When Douglas started, he was one of perhaps forty student entrepreneurs that a small team of two business advisors supported. Today, 12 staff and five student ambassadors provide free support to more than 100 student startups each year, to turn their ideas into world-changing businesses, offering skills training and helping them secure around £32m in investment, grants and funding. Meanwhile, our Student Enterprise Hub in Appleton Tower has become a focus for a vibrant entrepreneurial community, where students can access advisors, hold meetings, and conduct market research.”
This industry-leading support for student entrepreneurs has helped the University become top in Scotland for student enterprise and second in the Russell Group of UK universities.
Lorna says this is only the beginning: “This year, we’ve recorded 115 student startups – from high-tech innovators to freelancers, and we have a strong pipeline of high-growth businesses. Considering the scale of the University – 47,000 students and 15,000 staff – the potential is enormous.”
In the next five years, the Student Enterprise team plans to grow the number of student entrepreneurs it supports to more than 200 each year and reach more underrepresented groups in entrepreneurship as well as helping more academic colleagues embed enterprise in the curriculum.
Nothing to lose
For Lorna, engaging with entrepreneurship isn’t just for tech founders like Douglas. “We’re fundamentally offering students a chance to find their tribe – to work alongside others who are interested, not only in starting a business but who also want to make a difference and positively impact society. Whether you have a great idea for a startup, want to start a side hustle to help you finance student life, or just want to meet like-minded people, exploring entrepreneurship can help you learn invaluable skills and build networks to achieve your personal and professional ambitions.”
Douglas agrees. “You don’t go from zero to hero overnight, and you have nothing to lose. Whether you become an entrepreneur or not, pursuing your ideas is a valuable learning opportunity to build your life and career. Asking for help is the first step. I’ve received a lot of support from many places, and wherever I can help others on their journey, I absolutely will.”
Image credits: Featured image, Kunhui Chih/Getty; Douglas Martin portrait – Douglas Martin; Lorna Baird portrait – Maverick; Douglas Martin at Inspire, Launch Grow Awards – Edinburgh Innovations.